For Hopkins, chaos began months before tragedy

On July 9, 2001, Bernard Hopkins did his best to get inside Felix Trinidad's head, when he grabbed a miniature Puerto Rican flag out of his foe's hand and tossed it to the ground at a press conference in New York's Bryant Park.

On July 11, Hopkins went a step further, and tossed another flag to the floor in front of Trinidad.

In Puerto Rico.

In front of 10,000 rabid Trinidad acolytes at a press conference.

On Sept. 15, Trinidad, the WBA middleweight champion and the man considered by some as the best active pound-for-pound fighter, and Hopkins, the IBF and WBC middleweight titlist, were scheduled to hash it out at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Tensions, to put it mildly, were running high. Garden officials were beefing up security to an unprecedented level to ward off a riot.

On Sept. 11, everything changed.

Boxing went to the back of everyone's mind. There was no room for it, not as we contemplated the state of the nation, of the world, of our precarious existence.

Bernard Hopkins, in a hotel about four miles north of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, had just finished up some road work in Central Park. The temperature was comfortable and Hopkins' head was where it needed to be for Saturday's fight.

He was fairly sure that he had unnerved Trinidad, a potent finisher with a 40-0 record, with his nervy act of severe disrespect in Puerto Rico.

He knew he had the edge in technical skills and that no one in the game prepared like he did to ensure his stamina was where it needed to be to go 12 hard rounds.

The TV was on as the 39-2-1 boxer padded around the hotel room, enjoying his downtime before he had to head to a gym downtown for a workout later that morning.

"I saw the news and already one of the towers was on fire," he told ESPN.com. "I was thinking it was an accident. Then I saw the second plane hit straight into the tower, and then and there, like everybody else, I knew it was no accident."

The fight was four days away, but when that second missile-plane hit, Hopkins said, he didn't think about boxing at all.

"I was thinking, 'How can I get out of here?' I had to get back to Philly," said the Philadelphia native.

Instead of running through his strategy to wrest the last third jewel of the middleweight crown from Trinidad, Hopkins' brain, like all of ours, was abuzz with horrific possibilities.

Is that a human being flying out of that window?

Is World War III coming?

When is the other shoe going to drop?

Is my family safe?

Will the world ever be the same?

After sitting transfixed watching the news coverage for a spell, it dawned on the 36-year-old that there would be no fight Saturday.

At that time, former HBO boxing chief Lou DiBella was advising Hopkins. He lived on Long Island and was coming into the city for Hopkins' workout at the downtown gym. He heard about the attacks on the radio and then his phone rang.

It was Hopkins, indicating that he wanted to be near his family in Philly. DiBella advised him to stay put and wait it out while the dust settled. DiBella then got on the phone with the event's promoter, Don King. "I knew instantly that there would be no fight that week," DiBella said. "Before the towers fell, it was postponed."

King, the impresario who eats, sleeps and breathes his business 24/7, impressed DiBella on that day.

"Say what you will about him, he's got some sense of patriotism," DiBella said. "No one was thinking about the fight."

That was a switch. Prior to the events of that Tuesday morning, Hopkins and Trinidad were embroiled in a pre-fight buildup noteworthy for its passion and animosity.

After Hopkins tossed the flag on the ground at the presser in Puerto Rico, he was public enemy No. 1. A riot erupted immediately. Hopkins, literally, ran for his life.

"I ran and fought at the same time," he said. "I got three or four KOs on the way out."

To this day, Hopkins thanks the man upstairs that no one packing a shank attacked him.

"God was on my shoulders," he said.

Hopkins and his small entourage, which included his trainer, 73-year-old Bouie Fisher, were shuffled into a dressing room in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, while the angry mob tried to break down the door. They sweated it out for about 20 minutes and then were hustled into cars for the airport. Hopkins tossed on an overcoat, bucket hat and sunglasses to mask his identity, but at the airport, the security personnel and the pilots knew what had happened and knew who he was. CNN made sure of it. But public enemy No. 1 made it home.

So why'd he do it? Why'd he tug on the tiger's tail, while locked in the animal's cage?

The act, he says, was premeditated. In Bryant Park, it was a spur of the moment impulse, an attempt to send a message to his promoter King that Trinidad wasn't the be-all and end-all.

In Puerto Rico, though, Hopkins thought his message hadn't been sufficiently absorbed by King. Another source of displeasure for Hopkins was the purse breakdown -- Trinidad, in his second fight at 160 pounds, was paid $9 million while The Executioner was given $2.5 million. Also, Hopkins had heard that Trinidad wouldn't have to pay U.S. federal taxes on his purse, and that rankled the Philly fighter. And in addition, Hopkins wanted to throw Trinidad off his rhythm by jabbing at his greatest source of inspiration, his native land.

"I wanted to take his most important thing, the thing he has motivating him, his country his fans," the boxer said. "Then he had the pressure of winning for himself and his country."

That pressure percolated in Trinidad's head for an extra spell, as five days after the terror onslaught, the bout was reset for Sept. 29.

DiBella feels that the extra time did Trinidad no favors. "The time didn't affect Hopkins, a physical specimen in conditioning," he said. "But Tito had peaked. And he had to hold at that weight."

Come fight night, it can't be said that Hopkins' mindset was all placidity and focus. The Garden hummed with a mixture of anticipation and lingering sadness; this was the first major sporting event held in Manhattan after the Twin Towers collapsed. The 10-bell salute to the fallen prior to the fight hit the hearts of the 20,000 in attendance.

Love, and a promise of violence, were in the air when Trinidad came to the ring in an NYPD hat.

Hopkins came in wearing a red executioner's mask which sent a message: there would be no capitulation to political correctness because of the immense tragedy 18 days before. There was business to take care of, Hopkins knew, and boxing is a blood business. Better for the other guy's to spill than mine.

Some butterflies did take up residence in his gut leading up to the fight, he admits, though. Reporters reminded him of the attacks constantly and while he robotically spoke of the need to be "professional," fears did creep in. A packed MSG would have been a prime target, an enclosed target, for a terror cell to hit, and Hopkins tried to dispel that "what if" scenario whenever it crept in.

"Fight night, there were K9s in the building and CIA guys, guys with mikes in their ear," he said. "I said to myself, 'This ain't business as usual.' But I knew I had a job to do."

But in the ring, it was business as usual -- for Hopkins, anyway. He schooled the 28-year-old Trinidad from the outset, offering a master class in pugilism to the limited left hooker who won perhaps two rounds before his father rushed in the ring to halt the bout at 1:18 of the 12th.

A sweeping right hand put Trinidad on his butt and he tried to get his legs under him and rise, but instead fell back into the ropes. As the ref counted up, he stayed down, finally standing up with a second to spare. But the Puerto Rican icon's dad had seen enough, and came in the ring to spare his boy further punishment. And the crowd, 99 percent of them adoring Boricuas, applauded Hopkins for his technical superiority.

He was touched, he says, at the class Trinidad fans exhibited during a time when everybody was on edge and it would have been all too easy to dispel some anxiety with a raucous show of displeasure.

Five years have passed since the coordinated terror attack. Hopkins admits that the win over Trinidad, which served to open the eyes of copious holdouts who didn't give proper regard to the marquee middleweight, leaves him a bit conflicted.

The breakthrough win in a Hall of Fame career is inextricably linked with the most significant event of his lifetime, an unimaginable tragedy which will reverberate in this generation's hearts and minds as Pearl Harbor did for the G.I. Generation.

"I became a star that night, that year," said Hopkins, who tied Carlos Monzon's mark of 14 straight middleweight title defenses on Sept. 29. "It was the worst day for America. It was many Americans' worst year. In my own selfish way, it was my biggest year. My fight will be attached with that history."

Michael Woods, the news editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and the New York Observer.